Defining the terms and conditions

Apr 10, 2019

DISCLAIMER: This blog post was written after the STARTS.E.U mid-term presentation in Paris, June 2018.

This is not an academic paper - references cited are those found on the internet - for orientation rather and for the inspiration to dig further, than providing a clear answers. It is mainly reflecting my own creative and thinking process while working on a particular project.

"For me, the technology doesn't necessarily always introduce new, entirely novel things, but it frequently brings them to light in ways that we haven't seen before. Many of the processes that are ascribed to network technologies are not necessarily radically new, but they are newly visible to us. They are things that we were simply not aware of before, and I look for those."

James Bridle (why tech is important)

Moodboard - research and concept sketches aid - from my studio.

My work with the GROW Observatory was not about looking at the new device / code / gadget / tech solution to probe it and push its boundaries per se. In fact if that was it, things would be so much easier. The GROW Observatory is about fundamental values and elements driving society and life on this planet - that is soil and its condition - its role and its impact within today’s world. It is about a community of people in a form of citizen observatory - who, united together, investigate, observe and share information about soil, its moisture and other conditions across borders. And it is about science and technology, but not as a one device which will revolutionise soil’s fertility for example, but it is about connecting growers to the land, other people (non-growers) to growers’ work and their practices and effectively the produce of the soil.

The “technology” available to me within this project are the soil moisture sensors, the data and the platform for data transmission. There is a huge amount of data from the ground read by Flower Power soil moisture sensors, and terabytes of surface moisture data from the SENTINEL 1A satellite. An ambition of GROW is to validate the satellite data with observations and data collected not by scientists, but by growers - people who are mainly affected by moisture condition.

The reason why I placed the word “technology” in quotation marks is that I struggle with its definition in the context of GROW and I also have had some reservations about some expectations which come with the residency - that is to come up with some sort of INNOVATION. It is important to note that this musing of mine is not by any means an attack or direct critique of the VERTIGO programme (after all my project proposal was selected), but it is my own way of making order out of many scattered thoughts in regards to this project.

GROW Observatory data — avaiable to the artist

It is true that artists, technologists and scientists have worked together for a long time, and it has been often a fruitful relationship - that is artists help to frame and convey scientific research or probe various impact of technologies used in public domain, which might not be noticed otherwise. It is also true that sometimes a fresh pair of eyes, artistic curiosity and inquiry can help to “innovate”. However it is important to state that unless there is a specific brief to “design” a product or service, the primary role of art is not an act of “innovation”. Besides both terms “technology” and “innovation” have very broad meaning and perhaps it is important to specify the exact definition within the context of the project and artist’s own interpretation.

I haven’t read all the books about how to define “technology” or “innovation”. But a quick search on the internet has revealed that many people out there have also struggled with the exact definition of these terms. After the usual top results from wikipedia or Miriam-Webster dictionary I came across a blog post by Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University who did a fantastic job collecting quotes from thinkers, philosophers and practitioners on what “TECHNOLOGY” means. I feel that a lot of them can be summarised in this quote:

“Technology is the application of science, engineering and industrial organisation to create a human-build world.”

(Alfred P. Sloan Foundation / Richard Rhodes , Visions of Technology: A Century Of Vital Debate About Machines Systems And The Human World, p. 19)

Mindmap — a slide from the presentation about the VERTIGO STARTS project progress

There is a similar situation is with the term “INNOVATION”. After the usual list of results on google, there is this article by Eric Shaver with over 60 definitions of this word. Most of them, in my opinion, can be encapsulated in this sentence: “Innovation is the process through which value is created and delivered to a community of users in the form of a new solution.” (from Fast Company)

Why is it important to me to specify the meaning in this context? Because it often feels when thinking about technology and what it can do for soil and people working with soil, that the main objective is to intensify soil capacity for solely human benefit. Obviously, some practices and ways of utilising “technology” mean that life will thrive and not only humans will benefit from soil, but also earthworms, slugs, bacteria, insects and vast numbers of plants leading to life-affirming high levels of biodiversity. Perhaps, then other definitions of technology and innovation can be considered as processes and events happening around us to benefit all life on this planet, making entities such as soil, water, wind, plants into partners and collaborators, not as “natural resources”. For example, in this context I like this description of “technology” by Bernard Stiegler as “the pursuit of life by means other than life”

Similarly, when innovation is defined outside the “commercial” or “service led” values realm, thing also get much more inspiring and interesting. For example: “…innovation is a process of turning opportunity into new ideas and of putting these into widely used practice.” (Tidd & Bessant, 2009, p. 16) or “…the process of developing and implementing a new idea.” (Van de Ven, et al., 1999, p. 9). And for a new idea - curiosity and creativity is needed - the ability to imagine new concepts.

Guided by the above - I strive to imagine new concepts concerning how the subject of my research - soil, considered as an autonomous and intelligent system, can be conveyed through IoT technologies available to me - sensors and satellite - to the audience in such a way, that we can truly sense its physical presence, its gravity and most importantly - its power over us?

Soil samples collected on my research trip to one of the GROW places in Greece

I wonder whether before I engage in “innovating” practices and tools to intensify soil’s capacity, perhaps true innovation only can happen when I change my stance towards land and the soil? I also wonder how a complex living system such as soil, with its own ways of making decisions through a myriad of processes, can be depicted through “digital means” - in a binary way through the “bytes” of “data”? If I am guided by Timothy Morton’s thinking that the idea of "the natural" shall be abandoned, so that I consider the soil and IoT as a part of one whole, and place soil processes and binary data deriving from it in the context of a mainstream understanding of AI - where is the border between natural and artificial? If our daily activities - i.e. working with our personal computers - were governed by digital data - can data from soil conditions have some impact in that respect on what we do and how we live?

Obviously I will not be able to provide answers to all these questions, but perhaps my role as an artist/designer who probes subjects and technology is to paint scenarios based on these questions, which can present positive, life affirming ideas but also explore the darkest socio-political aspects of it all.

I would like to finish this essay with a quote from Donna Haraway - which reflects some of my internal sentiments and struggles with this negotiation of terms and their meaning, and what I find really the most important route:

“We relate, know, think, word, and tell stories through and with other stories, worlds, knowledges, thinkings, yearnings. So do all the other critters of Terra, in all our bumptious diversity and category-breaking speciations and knottings. Other words for this might be materialism, evolution, ecology, sympoiesis, history, situated knowledges, cosmological performance, science art worldings, or animism, complete with all the contaminations and infections conjured by each of these terms. Critters are at stake in each other in every mixing and turning of the terran compost pile. We are compost, not posthuman; we inhabit the humusities, not the humanities. Philosophically and materially, I am a compostist, not a posthumanist.”

Donna Haraway 2016

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VERTIGO is funded under the H2020 European STARTS initiative, innovation at the nexus of Science, Technology, and the ARTS. STARTS promotes the arts as catalysts for efficient conversion of science and technology knowledge into products, services, and processes.